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Menlo Park's council members fall into two camps -- no, not development vs. no-growth -- more like, thrifty vs. profligate when it comes to spending city funds on trips related to city business.
Out of 10 council members who served at any time since 2004, Kelly Fergusson, who was elected to the council that year, holds the record for most travel expenses, even before last week's now infamous trip to Washington, D.C., to visit with locally based politicians and stay in a $400-per-night hotel.
According to city documents obtained by the Almanac through a public records request, Ms. Fergusson has filed 60 requests, for a total of $12,476.34, since 2004. The only other current council member serving since December 2004 is Andy Cohen, whose total spending was $1,815.13. Mr. Cohen's total represents 22 requests.
That's an average of $1,996 per year of spending for Ms. Fergusson, and an average of $290 per year for Mr. Cohen.
Ms. Fergusson's tab includes two daytrip tours of water infrastructure that each cost close to $600; a $744.79 airplane ticket to Fresno; a Seattle conference; and at least two dozen regional dinner meetings.
She serves on the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, making the tours of water infrastructure relevant to council business.
Three other council members approached her record -- but only in number of requests. Nicolas Jellins filed 25, for a total of $3,216.29 during the three relevant years; Heyward Robinson, with 23 requests that added up to $5,511.81 during four years in office; and John Boyle, who during his four years in office asked for 24 reimbursements and received approximately $1,711, although he was the only council member to get reimbursed for Blackberry accessories.
Most council members, upon taking a turn as mayor, saw their travel expenses rise, with the exception of Rich Cline, who to date has filed only six reimbursement requests totaling $766, and who, despite being on his second term as mayor, has resisted the urge to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a three-day event that cost Menlo Park $2,057.77 for Ms. Fergusson to attend in 2007 and $3,512.94 for Mr. Robinson in 2009 -- a price tag that included a $1,229 plane ticket to D.C.
Wondering whether Menlo Park is subject to a double standard, since travel by other local councils such as Palo Alto apparently doesn't generate as much consternation, Mr. Robinson said in an e-mail that a cheaper plane ticket wasn't available since he waited to confirm the flights until after he became mayor; he added that he was able to stay with friends for free instead of paying $600 per night for a hotel room.
"While it's certainly appropriate for the public and the press to scrutinize expenses by their elected officials, I don't think that the importance of face-to-face meetings is being sufficiently appreciated," said Mr. Robinson, who left the council last December. "It's well known that if you want to influence federal funding and policy, you need to travel to Washington."
Mayor Cline said that while big conferences are great, they don't do much for Menlo Park. "Our issues are very parochial in many ways," he said. "There is a ton of info online -- lots of ways to follow other cities to learn how they render decisions and lots of folks to talk with to exchange ideas. I have never been an advocate of conferences and I rarely see it worth the expensive costs of investment."
However, Ms. Fergusson said those conferences allow her "to bring back best practices throughout the nation." Other events, such as Progress Seminars in Monterey, she said, are "educational about regional issues. I've gone almost every year on my own dime and only billed the city for two."
How about the council newcomers? Peter Ohtaki has spent $1,036.65 so far on one voluntary training event for newly elected mayors and council members in Sacramento.
Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith attended the same "new council member" event, but has also filed five additional expense reports, tying her with Mr. Cline for number of requests even though she's been on the council for only four months. With total reimbursements of $1,227.36, however, she pushed ahead in the cost category as compared with the mayor's $766 during his four-and-a-quarter-year tenure. Highlights: the Mount Olive Annual Crab Feed ($40); the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau annual meeting ($65), and a State of the Valley conference ($150).
City Manager Glen Rojas explained the council travel policy: A $10,000 fund covers travel costs for all five council members as part of the annual city budget. They can either ask the city to pay in advance, or request reimbursement. When the trip involves traveling out of state, the reimbursement must be approved, before or after the fact, by the council during a regular meeting.
He said the council as a whole usually doesn't spend the full $10,000; any leftover money returns to the general fund.
Ms. Fergusson sounded irritated when the Almanac asked her about the expenses, and refused to answer questions about the D.C. trip, saying an expense report would be coming shortly.
"It doesn't seem like you cover actual news anymore," she said.